02/21/2023, 11.27
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Franciscans of the Holy Land: from Jerusalem to Ur in the footsteps of Abraham

by p. Ibrahim Faltas*

A Custody delegation visited Iraq in the days of the episcopal ordination of the new Syrian Catholic bishop of Mosul, a country marked by the drama of the Islamic State. The visit to Baghdad Cathedral, theatre of the 2010 massacre. The statue of Our Lady in Basra, where Muslims also stop to pray.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - We publish the account of a pilgrimage of a group of Franciscans from the Holy Land, led by the custodial vicar Fr Ibrahim Faltas, from 31st January to 8th February last. The visit was an opportunity to participate in the ordination of the new bishop of Mosul of the Syro-Catholics and to visit some of the most significant places of the Christian presence in Iraq, a land that still bears the marks of the devastation of Isis. Below is the testimony of Fr. Ibrahim.

A journey through time, retracing the ancient roads in the land of Abraham. Leaving in the morning from Jerusalem, arriving for lunch in Amman and dinner in Baghdad was an incredible leap: from the land of Jesus to Jordan where Moses led the people of Israel to the Promised Land to Iraq, to our origins with a small delegation of Franciscan friars.

The reason for our journey was to take part in the episcopal ordination of Msgr Younan Hano, newly ordained bishop of the Syrians of Mosul, cousin of Fr Haitam, one of the members of our group of 'pilgrims'. 

In the meeting with the Patriarch of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, Card. Louis Raphael Sako, we retraced the suffering of the martyred Iraqi land, of a destroyed and violated Church, of crucifixes carved in the rock that have been made to disappear by the fury of the soldiers of the Islamic State, of the suffering of the Iraqi people who had to abandon everything, taking refuge elsewhere, to save their own lives and those of their children.

In Baghdad - called Madinat as-Salam (city of peace) by Caliph Al Mansur - one breathes the air of the capital that still bears the signs of the war that destroyed ancient and prestigious monumental sites, which made it the second most populous city in the Middle East after Cairo.

The visit to the Syro-Catholic community in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation where, in October 2010, 48 faithful and priests were killed while attending mass, paying the ultimate price of fidelity to the Lord, was also moving.

In Qaraqosh, in the plain of Nineveh, we participated in the episcopal ordination, a true community feast for all the Syro-Catholic faithful, with over 1,500 people in silence and prayer. A large number of men and young people attended, something that particularly struck me because we are no longer used to seeing them in such large numbers in our churches.

The people of the area welcomed us as a blessing because we were from Jerusalem, and their stories were filled with a strong and uncontrollable faith. From 2014 to 2017 they were forced to leave their homes, abandon everything, to escape the destruction of Isis.

After these long years of hardship and terror, they have returned to their small town and are rebuilding their destroyed homes, their country, proud to have returned to their land ever more rooted in faith, and with the strong hope of starting again.

When talking about history, in books we always refer to before and after the birth of Christ; today in the world we tend to separate events between before and after the Covid; here we say before Daesh and after Daesh.

The visit to the kindergarten of the Franciscan sisters in Qaraqosh was an opportunity - coinciding with my birthday - to recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic with the students of the institute. It was a moment of devotion that surprised us with the intensity and harmony of the words the children conveyed.

Near Qaraqosh is Mosul. The city impressed us, as did the entire road we travelled, which bears signs of destruction everywhere: houses, monasteries, churches with severed statues of the Virgin Mary heads, places of history erased by the devastation of Daesh.

But over all this destruction prevails the new Sanctuary of God, which we encountered in the faith of a people who cling to their land and this is a source of hope for all. On the journey we found numerous check-points, but without even showing our documents, it was enough to say that we were Christians and they let us pass without any problems.

When we arrived in Basra, in the south, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, I visited the projects run by the John Paul II Foundation for children and young people. We met the local archbishop, Msgr Alnaufali Habib Jajou, who told us about the life of the local community, then we visited the Church of the Sacred Heart, which houses a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes where many Shiite believers also go to pray.

In this regard, we were told of a Shia girl from a Muslim neighbourhood who often stopped to pray before the Virgin and when asked why, the girl replied that she didn't really know who this woman was, but she never sent her away empty-handed!

Finally, the stop in Ur of the Chaldees and the ancient land of Abraham, the father of the three great monotheistic religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims. During the journey, the terrible news of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the stories of the displaced people housed in our convents and the work of the friars for the frightened people left with nothing.

In Ur we were welcomed by a delegation of Shiites and for us it was like stepping onto a page of the Bible, back in 2000 B.C. It was a beautiful experience, shared with my brothers and the many people we met.

We have travelled many kilometres, touching with our own hands the devastating wounds of the Isis invasion, the same wounds of Libya, Syria and the entire Middle East that have not yet healed. Millennia of culture have been wiped out by war, but the Lord is great, because He continually gives the strength to get back up and start again, as for the Iraqi people who experienced a forced exodus, but also a return 'out of love' for their land and to keep their roots alive.

Regardless of being Christian or Shia, but united, overcoming misunderstandings and the deep wounds of the past to walk together towards unity and peace.

* Vicar General of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem


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